CAIRO: Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born actor with the dark, soulful eyes who soared to international stardom in movie epics, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” died Friday. He was 83.
Sharif died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital, his longtime agent, London-based Steve Kenis, and the head of Egypt’s Theatrical Arts Guild, Ashraf Zaki, told The Associated Press.
The actor had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Sharif was Egypt’s biggest box-office star when director David Lean cast him in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”
But he was not the director’s first choice to play Sherif Ali, the tribal leader with whom the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence teams up to help lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
Lean had hired another actor but dropped him because his eyes weren’t the right color.
The film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, went to Cairo to search for a replacement and found Sharif. After passing a screen test that proved he was fluent in English, he got the job.
His entrance in the movie was stunning. He was first seen in the distance, a speck in the swirling desert sand.
As he drew closer, he emerged first as a black figure on a galloping camel, slowly transforming into a handsome, dark-eyed figure with a gap-tooth smile.
The film brought him a supporting-actor Oscar nomination and international stardom.
Three years later, Sharif demonstrated his versatility, playing the leading role of a doctor-poet who endures decades of Russian history, including World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, surviving on his art and his love for his beloved Lara in “Dr. Zhivago.”
Lean’s adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel had a rocky beginning in its first U.S. release.
Attendance was sparse and reviews were negative.
After MGM removed it from theaters and Lean re-edited the sprawling tale, it was re-released and became a box-office hit. Still, Sharif never thought it was as good as it could have been.
“It’s sentimental. Too much of that music,” he once said, referring to Maurice Jarre’s luscious Oscar-winning score.